Sermon Preached by The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally
Bishop of London
Midnight Service St Paul’s Cathedral 24th December 2019
The Christ Child has arrived. After months of buying presents, preparing food and planning. He is here. We are here – I wonder what your journey was like getting here – I don’t mean just to the Cathedral but to Christmas eve?
Although your journey to the Cathedral may well have been interesting too. I recently returned to St Paul’s’ Cathedral and stood in a tube train, standing packed in like sardines in what is known as the central line. More parts of my body touched strangers than was comfortable and then 6 more people got in and tensions were high – so I looked into the eyes of the person who I stood nose to nose with and said – ‘As we are standing so close maybe I should tell you may name’ – the people around began to laugh and by the next station strangers had become friends.
As we tell the Christmas story we tell of Christ’s welcome by his parents, the shepherds, wise men and the angels, we forget that not everyone became friends that night. Some were not so welcoming. The innkeeper, for example, who turned his family and him away, or King Herod and Emperor Augustus, who acted with overt hostility toward Jesus him. Yet this was all part of God’s design.
The Christ Child became vulnerable to make us safe. He left his father in heaven to invite us into a new family.
In The Times one Boxing Day, a former Bishop of Oxford John Pritchard talked about how it is our claim as Christians that ‘love came down at Christmas’, and that this was embodied in the only form we could ultimately understand – a human life. ‘Jesus was the human face of God, God’s self-portrait glimpsed in the puckered vulnerability of a newborn baby.’
From the outset, the Christmas story sets the pattern for Christ’s ministry and the picture of God’s love. The outcast made the insider and the stranger become family.
When Matthew’s gospel tells us of Jesus’ heritage, the list includes Tamar, Rahab and Ruth – all marginalised women.
In the gospels Mary who Joseph had mind to divorce quietly sings her song, the Magnificat – “God has scattered the proud and exalted those of low degree, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty” – she sings of revolution.
The shepherds, social outcasts, were not trusted in their community enough even to give evidence in a Jewish court of law, but hear the angels declaring that God was with them: “Gloria. In Excelsis Deo.”
Wise men are outsiders to the Hebrew faith but who, against all the odds, came and worshipped at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus’ ministry is shaped by the stranger – the women at the well, the leper on the road side crying out, the women who had been bleeding for 12 years and touched his cloak, the tax collector – yes he even ate with the tax collector – and it was women who witnessed the resurrection.
All who were included not by chance but as signs of the kingdom of God. No wonder the angles cry Glory to God in the Highest. I hope you know you are family.
On one night of all nights God entered our world with an infant in his arms. In him we got a permanent glimpse of God, and we see, the face of God. The face of one who welcomes the stranger.
Despite how close we stand on the tube; London is one of the loneliest cities in the world. According to the Greater London Authority’s Survey of Londoners, over half of us have been lonely in the last year, with just 19% saying they never feel alone. Those under 24s are most likely to be affected. One 23-year-old living in our capital put it like this: “loneliness can often feel like British weather. Suddenly the clouds disperse, and you have a long unexpected heatwave of joy, of feeling included. Other days it starts raining with no warning.”
And some groups are even more vulnerable. If you happen to have a disability, the barriers faced in everyday life make loneliness more likely. Likewise Pakistani, Gypsy Roma, Irish Travellers, and the homeless are more vulnerable to loneliness than other ethnic groups because of racism and lower incomes. In other words, those on the margins find themselves doubly disadvantaged.
Rabbi Sacks said that he used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. But love the stranger occurs no fewer than 36 times. Rabbi Sacks said that he realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours.
From Genesis to Deuteronomy, the command to love or welcome the strange was central in Israelite understanding, care of the “resident alien” or “foreigner”, for widows and orphans, or “the least” of that society and context. God calls on us through the Old Testament scriptures to extend a particular welcome to the outsider, the one not at home, the one who is vulnerable and thus in need of hospitality.
Jesus reaffirms and reinterprets the idea of welcoming the stranger: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And when they wonder when it was that they offered him hospitality, he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In Jesus’ interpretation, the “least” are to be viewed as the face of Christ himself, as God-with-us.
These days, it can sometimes seem that there is increasing fear around welcoming strangers or refugees. This speaks of a broader distrust of diversity and difference. In times like these, the idea of making space for a stranger seems vastly removed from our reality, a naïve hope. Yet there are examples all around us where intentional welcome for other people who have been made “strangers” or vulnerable, people who are presumed not to belong or not to matter and it makes a difference.
As we welcome the Christ Child today, let us remember that we are called to be part of God’s family and we are called to form a river of angels that shelters the homeless, the displaced, the refugees, the strangers, all of whom are the face of Christ. So, in a world that so often turns vulnerable people away, let us continue to be people of welcome, knowing that through our hospitality, God is able to make strangers into kin.
In John’s gospel we read of Jesus: “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
To follow the Christ of Christmas is to become part of God’s family in heaven and in the church family here on earth. Amen.